History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - A Renaissance Herbal

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The women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance knew a good herb when they saw one. They grew them in little gardens or window pots, or went into the fields or the roadside to pick the herbs wild and fresh. Along with their virtues in cooking, sweetening the air or killing pests, herbs formed the basis of the pre-modern pharmacopoeia. I've gathered here just some of the most common herbs used then-and today-with some of the uses from the time period.

Basil (Ocimum Basilicum): Used in the past from pottage to pickling, basil also, according to Diosorides, dulled the eyesight and was hard on digestion. In a strange use for the herb, one medieval source suggested laying a little green basil under the plate of a women, who would mysteriously refuse to eat the food from that plate.

Mint (Mentha aquatica): Mint showed up in recipes for salads, omelettes and meats and a mint sauce supposedly increased the appetite for meat. As for mint's curative side, early sources say it was good for toothache, would prevent vomiting, and would cure blotches on the face if applied as a poultice.

Sage (Salvia officinalis): One of the most popular herbs, medieval and renaissance cooks used sage to cook pottage, salad, chicken stuffing and meat pies. But it was also highly popular for its health benefits. Sage was said to improve digestion, soothe palsy, counteract venom and ease itching. Sage tea is still a remedy in many countries today for weak stomachs, headaches, fevers and colds.

Savory (Satureja hortensis): Cooks used savory when they wanted a peppery flavor in their pottage or meat dishes. Some old sources say not to use too much savory, though, because it "stirreth him that useth lechery." On the health side, savory could be used as a purgative, to help the lungs and liver and to bleach tanned complexions.

Thyme (Thymus serpyllum): This herb as a flavoring wasn't as popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as it is now, but it was used for pottage and some meat dishes. Thyme was said to be good for improving the eyesight, clearing the throat of phlegm and for asthma. A wine with thyme in it warmed the heart, liver and spleen.

Aloe (Aloe vera): The benefits of this herb have been known for centuries. Medieval and Renaissance sources talk about aloe's bitter taste, and speak of the aloe juice as good for wounds, the stomach, encouraging sleep and preventing hair from falling out. The Grete Herball talks of aloe as being good "for worms in the belly and ears." Of course, today we use aloe in all sorts of skin preparations; it's particularly effective against burns.

Betony (Stachys officinalis): This was a "wonder" herb in the Middle Ages. It was used for just about everything "for the man's soul or for his body." Betony soaked in sweetened wine and consumed at night would cure fatigue. The herb prevented bad dreams. It was said to be good for head wounds, watery eyes, ear ache, nosebleeds, toothache and coughs. The Grete Herball even cites Betony as something of a tranquilizer-taken as a powder in warm water and wine, the herb calms down a person who is about to confront something fearful.

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris): Do you not want dogs to bark at you? Then carry the herb Columbine, according to Pseudo-Apuleius. Other historical claims for the herb include its ability to prevent poisoning, or when drunk with ale, to destroy the plague. It was said that sorcerers used the herb in their arts. Columbine was also eaten in potage.

Feverfew (Chrysanthemum Parthenium): An all-purpose herb, Feverfew was said to be good for stomach aches and cramps. Herbalists believed it helped heal a bite from "venomous beasts;" when stamped and applied to broken bones, Feverfew would help the bones set and heal. Other sources say that eating the herb's seeds will drive out worms from the body, and a woman who drinks the herb with wine will become fertile. It's also been used in tea to soothe the nerves or throat.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum): This mysterious herb was said to scream when pulled out of the ground. It was a medieval anesthetic, used to relieve pain during cuts or cauterizations of wounds. Consumption of Mandrake would knock out the patient for several hours. It was also used in love medicines, mixtures to cure "devil sickness" or insanity, for sterility in woman and for "heavy mischief in the home"-whatever that means! Mandrake was also said to have the shape of a man or woman, but this was disputed even during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.